Emily Johnson Previews Her All-Night Participatory Project on Randalls Island


It’s a transitional moment for venerable downtown institution P.S.122. This year, the organization looks toward its future with a new artistic director, Jenny Schlenzka, who recently replaced Vallejo Gantner following the latter’s formative decade-long tenure. (He stepped down last year.) Schlenzka is P.S.122’s first female leader and, as a former MoMA P.S.1 curator, will bring an interdisciplinary perspective to the role.

As old gives way to new, perhaps it’s fitting that this weekend’s P.S.122 performance — an all-night event on Randalls Island — contemplates the city’s past by delving into its indigenous heritage. Created by choreographer and performance artist Emily Johnson with her company, Catalyst Dance, Then a Cunning Voice and A Night We Spend Gazing at Stars builds on the group’s previous participatory projects, like SHORE, a multi-day touring event that included dance, stories, and volunteer work in local communities. Then a Cunning Voice invites audiences to camp out on massive quilts — stargazing, listening to stories and songs, and discussing communal relationships to local land and indigenous heritage. Johnson spoke with the Voice by phone ahead of the premiere this Saturday.

What kinds of stories will be told during the night?

Myself and [performers] Tania Isaac and Georgia Lucas will perform choreographies and tell stories about [our] homes. I tell a story about my great-grandmother, about birds coming to visit her after she passed, coming to take her to the next place that she will be. Over the course of this story it’s describing how we as people have impacted the world, and now we’re like, “Why is the water coming up onto our shores? Why is it so hot?” It’s part of a story that relates to all of our grandmothers, who are in a long conversation with the water as to what to do. I hope that call to action is made metaphorically but is also quite clear. Muriel Miguel, founder of [indigenous company] Spiderwoman Theater, and someone from the parks service who knows the history of Randalls Island will also tell stories.

The audience will sit on quilts designed by Maggie Thompson, incorporating ideas sourced from multiple U.S. and international communities. How were the quilts created?

We’ve done sewing bees [workshops] across the country and in Australia and Taiwan over the course of many years. These have included informal drop-in workshops and formal ones, like Umyuangvigkaq, the seven-hour bee we did for P.S.122’s COIL Festival [in January 2017]. The quilts are inscribed with ideas based upon questions like: “What do you want for your well-being and the well-being of your friends and family and community?” And for your city, or your tribal nation? People bring hundreds of ideas — it’s like a wall of beautiful possibility.

One idea that comes up on the quilt a lot is ending racism. I’m not twinkle-eyed about this: It’s one thing to write things down and another to step into the process. That means grounding into a recognition of where we are — in this case, Lenape homeland. What is my relationship to indigenous peoples of this land? How might we be good guests? One of our partners is the Lenape Center. Food is being created by Jen Rae, who works with indigenous food knowledge.

Why Randalls Island?

P.S.122 and I were looking for an open space, an area that wasn’t filled with streetlight. Once we got to Randalls Island, the energy there felt right. I was there for sunrise a couple of weeks ago. I could hear the clubs still bumping in the Bronx; you can see Rikers Island. It felt like a place where this energy should be exchanged.

What will audience members do during the night?

This is not a show where you come and sit back — there are tasks we need help with! You can help us unfold the quilts. There’s this beautiful yogurt made over the night, so we need audience members to help Jen in the kitchen. There’s a conversation we have around three in the morning, based on artist and scholar Lois Weaver’s open-forum long-table format, about what it is to be a good guest.

Mique’l Dangeli is credited with “protocols” for the piece. What does this mean?

She is a doctor of protocol. This practice is quite common in Australia and Canada. It has not come into being in the U.S., and it needs to. For example, I would say, I acknowledge the Lenape homeland, and I acknowledge ancestors — past, present, or future. P.S.122 has been working with me and Mique’l and has written an acknowledgment of how [the institution] can verbally, and in written form, acknowledge the land that they work on, where we are and whose homeland this is. In this country we are so far behind; we don’t recognize indigeneity here. Bringing that into practice in this country is so essential.

Then a Cunning Voice and A Night We Spend Gazing at Stars
Randalls Island
August 19–20

Under the Stars and Quilts, With Randalls Island as Her Stage

It’s a sleepover to beat all sleepovers. Food, stories, discussions, dances and, after an opening ceremony and a two-mile walk, settling down for the night on a 4,000-square-foot bed of quilts.

For her newest performance project, “Then a Cunning Voice and a Night We Spend Gazing at Stars,” the dance artist Emily Johnson will play host to 300 strangers in Randalls Island Park. This all-night event on Saturday, Aug. 19, which is presented by Performance Space 122, is no endurance test. Participants will be on the island long enough to watch the sun set and rise again. Ms. Johnson, who specializes in multidisciplinary work, is trying to spark some change and some healing in the world. “It takes us taking a step together to do that,” she said. “I love bringing people together.”

And she’s good at it. For Ms. Johnson, a soft-spoken Alaskan of Yup’ik ancestry, action taken, no matter how small, adds up. “Gather our awareness, gather our senses,” she continued. “Gather our ability to care for one another, to rest together and to move toward a guided action.”

She can’t predict what that action will be in the end, but Ms. Johnson does feel adamant that it’s time for a shift. “Across the world, there are these disruptions and ripples — deep, deep anguish and deep, deep bursts of action, all of which is necessary,” she said. “But how can we focus? We come together. And that is like ceremony. You don’t know what the end of ceremony is, you just know that you’re stepping into a process.”

Ms. Johnson, who lives on the Lower East Side after 21 years spent in Minneapolis, has been working toward such an event. Her recent project “Shore” extended beyond the proscenium stage to include, in a 2015 New York iteration, a performance that began outside and moved indoors, a section directed by Ain Gordon; volunteerism in the Rockaways and on Governors Island; and a potluck feast.

This time, Mr. Gordon is directing the entire event; early on, he convinced Ms. Johnson to contain “Then a Cunning Voice” to a single site.

“She was talking about this idea of stargazing and about turning off electric light, so I sort of said, ‘So we’re going to do all that and then march everybody off to a theater and turn on stage lights?” he said. “That doesn’t sound theatrical to me. So we began to talk about how it could all happen in one place.”

Mr. Gordon, a three-time Obie winner, enjoys the collaborative process because it refreshes his own. It helps that he and Ms. Johnson have different artistic impulses. “She tends to wish for things to ebb and flow,” he said, “and I tend to be more decisive about ‘here is the beginning and here is the end.’

“In the millions of conversations we’ve had, I don’t remember Emily saying, ‘Will this be big enough for the size of the stage?’ And I say that all the time.”

After hearing his comment, Ms. Johnson laughed for a good 10 seconds. “Good,” she said.

Ms. Johnson is just as fond of her other collaborators, who include the dancers Tania Isaac and Georgia Lucas, a 12-year-old from Newark who performed in “Shore,” as well as the textile artist Maggie Thompson, who designed the quilts. They were created in multiple cities by volunteers at community sewing bees around the United States and in Taiwan and Australia. Inscriptions are sewn into the quilts, answering questions like, “What do you want for your well-being?” One answer reads: “A changed relationship to time.”

Jen Rae, a founder of the Australia-based Fair Share Fare, a collaborative art project that focuses on the future of food amid the looming disruptions of climate change, is planning the menu. In Melbourne, where “Shore” was also performed, Ms. Rae focused on indigenous food.

In her work, subtly or otherwise, there is always a recognition of the notion of indigenous people and their land. Randalls Island, as Ms. Johnson pointed out, is in the Lenapehoking homeland — the lands inhabited by Native Americans known as the Lenape. For “Then a Cunning Voice,” Ms. Rae is researching the history of Randalls Island, including its soil and the language and traditions of the Lenape people. It’s not catering, but rather, it’s food as art.

Ms. Johnson knows that 12 hours is a long time to spend with strangers. She hopes that the initial walk to the performance site will be a way, she said, “to shed what we need to shed from the day.”

“I’m really relying on people to be ready to shift,” she said. “That’s going to be really necessary for this night to feel good. And that relates to what this whole night is about, which is about shifting so that we can shift the world.”

The audience, in other words, must be a willing participant and is very much a part of the piece itself. (An etiquette guide for the performance comes with purchase of a ticket.)

“We are together and responsible for this thing,” she said. “I think that that’s good practice about being a responsible citizen. Why can’t we enact this kind of responsibility in our lives?”

 Ms. Johnson and her dog Spicer on Randall’s Island. Credit Tawni Bannister for The New York Times

Ms. Johnson and her dog Spicer on Randall’s Island. Credit Tawni Bannister for The New York Times

Both she and Mr. Gordon are sure about one thing: the setting. “On Randalls Island, you can hear and feel the city, but you’re also separate from it a little bit,” Ms. Johnson said. “It’s situated across from Rikers Island. I was like, all right, this is energy that wants to be exchanged and cleared and acknowledged — this feels like the right place to do this work.”

Mr. Gordon describes Randalls Island as being very old New York, which he likes. “All the beautification of New York — none of that has happened in how you get to Randalls Island,” he said. “It’s the old version of how you get somewhere. You really have to take the train to 125th Street and then you have to look for the bus stop, and it’s a regular old bus, and then you say to the bus driver, ‘Which stop do I get off for the Sunken Meadow?’ And he says, ‘I don’t know.’”

Laughing with delight, Mr. Gordon said: “It is kind of a secret little spot. That’s how it feels to me.”


Link to article here.


Randall’s Island Park
Saturday, August 19, $50, dusk to after sunrise

Born in Alaska of Yup’ik descent, Bessie Award-winning multidisciplinary artist and Guggenheim Fellow Emily Johnson has been forging a unique identity as an innovative creator for more than fifteen years, engaging with a wide range of diverse collaborators to present immersive works that combine dance with other artistic forms, structured around a heartfelt connection with the natural environment, civic responsibility, and Indigenous cultures. A charming, ever-enthusiastic dancer and choreographer who recently moved from Minneapolis to New York City, Johnson and her aptly named Catalyst troupe have been crazy busy preparing her biggest project yet, Then a Cunning Voice and a Night We Spend Gazing at Stars, a PS122 production that takes place on Randall’s Island from 6:00 pm Saturday night until just after sunrise on Sunday morning, for an audience of three hundred very lucky people. Directed by three-time Obie winner Ain Gordon, the unique gathering will feature stories by Muriel Miguel of Spiderwoman Theater, Karyn Recollet leading a kinstillatory activation and roundtable discussion, specially researched food by futurist Jen Rae, visual design by textile artist Maggie Thompson, lighting by Lenore Doxsee, and performances by Johnson, Tania Isaac, and Georgia Lucas, all situated on and around four thousand square feet of quilts made at sewing bees around the United States and Australia and Taiwan. Johnson, whose previous pieces include Niicugni, Shore, and The Thank-You Bar, somehow found some time to discuss her latest project in this exclusive email interview.

twi-ny: A lot of years have gone into this project. Are you nervous about August 19? I imagine it’s a massive undertaking.

emily johnson: It’s so big. Everything about it. Moving the quilts from where we have them stored on Randall’s Island to the bit of land we lay them down on — that itself is a massive undertaking we do twice a day. The amount of story . . . the movement of light. The ideas written on the quilts — hundreds and hundreds of ideas from hundreds of people who have voiced what they want for their well-being, for their futures. The bringing of care packages, of blankets, of food to the audience. The connection between ground and sky. The hunting and fishing and harvesting. The continual learning of this land and these waters — the stories, plants, histories, and futures here. For two years now I’ve been saying — we can keep preparing. We could go on preparing forever. But in a way, there is only so much we can prepare for. We prepare and prepare and then — the more difficult part — we let go of needing it to go the way in which we’ve prepared. Not totally, of course. Even writing that is hard. But we have to be ready to hold the movement of the night. Because what we have been preparing for is a shared thing. A shared night. We will host you — we will hold you with these quilts, these stories, this movement, this food we’ve made. And we have a beautiful plan, but the biggest part of this plan (ha) is the unknown. We now also have to be prepared to move and respond and be with the collective energy. We have to hold the night, guide it, but listen, too. So, we’re ready. We have to be. I mean all of us. All of us who gather on this night — audience and cast and crew; beings seen and unseen — we have to be ready to listen, to let go of things moving in the direction they are on, and of course to put our actions into moving things in a direction that is good. We have to be ready to pay attention to one another, to rest and then gather the resources of time, energy, intent to actually make this world one we can continue to live in, one our kids can live in, one that the kids seven generations from now will not curse us for but, instead, be thankful for. That’s our job. And, of course, what is special about this night is that it is a continuation of this labor. We have gathered ideas, made quilts, made stories and dance, harvested food. . . . But really, what I can say is that hundreds of people have gathered these ideas, made these quilts, harvested, hunted, farmed, and gifted vegetables, meat, fish, fruits, herbs . . . so . . . What is there to be nervous about? (I say that with a smile, of course.) We are all in this together.

twi-ny: How did you come about choosing to do this on Randall’s Island?

ej: Randall’s Island is something special. To me it’s an energy. We are in the city but we are on another island in this city. The actual ground we lay the quilts on is backfill from one of the subway constructions, so it’s actually land from Mannahatta, built up for these baseball fields and picnic areas. We are on the bank of the East River — which you can’t really access in such a way most other areas in the city. There is a mix of baseball, soccer, families picnicking, people fishing, the farm on the island, also the industries — the hospital and fire department training grounds, the shelters. What I like is that through this night of community, of performance, of sharing, of discussion — in the morning, we are right here. In the city. In the place we need to begin. Baseball players coming to practice; people coming to fish. We see Rikers Island, we hear the Bronx and the traffic, we see tugboats and the barges moving by. We are not separating this art, this movement, this discussion, this imagination, this action from the world. It’s all here. We step into the day.

twi-ny: You’re very tuned in to the land and the environment; have you encountered anything particularly unique or surprising about the specific space where Then a Cunning Voice is being held?

ej: When I walk up to the spot at Sunken Meadow where we will be most of the night I immediately relax — maybe it’s the expanse of water. Maybe it’s the anticipation of gathering people there. It’s like the ground is waiting for this night. The other day we walked from Wards Meadow to Sunken Meadow through a Native flower garden and a praying mantis on Sweet Joe Pye Weed caught my eye. I spent time looking at it. It turned its head toward me. There is energy on Randall’s Island — one that is calling for this relationship, for this exchange.

 Emily Johnson communes with nature during MANCC residency(photo by Chris Cameron)

Emily Johnson communes with nature during MANCC residency(photo by Chris Cameron)

twi-ny: Your quilting events have been held all over the country as well as in Taiwan and Australia. When you started, did you ever foresee the kind of results you have gotten? What kind of community has been built around the quilts?

ej: What I have been so beautifully surprised with is the way in which the sewing bees have accumulated, how people and organizations have and keep asking if they can host them. I had no idea people love to sew so much! It’s showing me again and again how deeply people want to spend time together. I have many favorites — the times when the sewing bees are casual and people stop by for a brief time or spend hours. These have been hosted in living rooms, art centers, dance studios, museums, parks. . . . And there are more formal sewing bees, like Umyuangvigkaq, which we hosted with PS122 as part of the Coil Festival in January, a seven-hour-long sewing bee and Long Table Discussion centered on Indigeneity in the performing arts world and the world at large. We gathered a brilliant council of Indigenous women to lead the provocations — Karyn Recollet, Dr. Mique’l Dangeli, Lee-Ann Buckskin, Vicki Van Hout, myself — and built a day of deep discussion. I could feel the shifts happening. The cracks opening. I looked around and saw a large gathering of people dedicated to this conversation, to making the deep personal inquiries that go into healing. Because this is what we need. We need those deep personal inquiries that go into decision making but that come from our own narratives and histories. This is where change/shift/possibility comes from. This spring at a school in Melbourne, I was working with a group of students who are newly arrived refugees to Australia. They are separated from their families. They are having a difficult go. They are hopeful. As we sat and sewed, laughed, and talked about what we each wanted for the well-being of the world, one of the students looked up and said, “These quilts — they’re like maps to the futures we envision.”

twi-ny: You are working again with Georgia Lucas, who was part of Shore. She’s now twelve; what is so special about this young talent?

ej: During the first provocation of Umyuangvigkaq, which was about confronting perceived invisibility and led by Lee-Ann Buckskin and Dr. Mique’l Dangeli, Georgia looked up from her sewing and said to the large gathering of adults in the room, “This conversation makes me understand . . . I was born here . . . but the land does not belong to me. I belong to the land.”

She knows and learns and inquisites deeply. She shares her energy through her stories and movement in a way that is calculated — she knows and feels when is right and if she trusts you, you’ll receive what she has to share. I think this is a pretty brilliant way to perform. I’ve actually never seen someone perform like this before. We teach one another about sharing energy. Also, she’s just awesome to hang out with. And she knows the best superhero movies to see.

twi-ny: People will be spending ten to twelve hours on Randall’s Island, from dusk to after sunrise. What is the one thing they shouldn’t forget to bring with them?

ej: This process has brought us to create a work in which we are all part. We are all responsible for making this night a good one for one another. Partly that’s in being game — to be outside, through bugs and wind (oh god, hopefully not rain!), to be up all night or most of it, to be at but also inside of a performance, to engage in discussion, to be asked to understand the reality of being a guest here — if you are a guest here, which, if you are not Lenape or of one of the Indigenous Nations with deep ties to Lenapehoking, you/I/we are. How are we good guests — of this night, of this land? How do we let this knowledge be resonant in our lives and how does this change every single thing about how we relate to and understand where we live — the physical place and the circumstantial place of August 2017? So, how do I say — “Don’t forget to come with an open heart!” without sounding totally cheesy? But we need that. We need open hearts. I say it in one of my stories: “We unfold our hearts.” I hope for that. For this night but also for the shifts we must become ready to make for our future and our world. And on the practical side — we are sharing a gorgeous bounty of food and food knowledge conceived of, researched and prepared by food futurist Jen Rae (Metis) — as this is a zero-waste event — don’t forget your cup, your bowl, utensils, and cloth napkin!

 Emily Johnson leads sewing bee at Northern Spark in Minneapolis(photo by Erin Westover)

Emily Johnson leads sewing bee at Northern Spark in Minneapolis(photo by Erin Westover)

twi-ny: You’ve long been an Indigenous activist; what are your views about the Dakota Access Pipeline and Standing Rock Indian Reservation? What are some other Indigenous-related problems going on in America that are not getting as much publicity?

ej: I like this question, Mark. But first I need to shift the second part to read: Indigenous-related solutions. Because this is what I see — Indigenous people, Indigenous women especially, at the center, at the apex, at the front lines always, always, always of the solutions. We are a steady working, powerfully supple and surgent force. It is Indigenous women who began the stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline. It is Indigenous women who lead the legal, political, cultural, and familial decisions and discussions. I refuse to say fight. It is Indigenous women — with the help of our Indigenous men, Two-Spirits, children, ancestors, and non-Indigenous allies who see what needs to change and who work through language, art, politics, protections toward the solutions that are part of our everyday — food sovereignty, land rights, education, economic growth, and justice in our communities, healing. We are doing this work. Individually, collectively, in large circles and smaller ones. We need ally-ship. We need those of you who are from the dominant, settler side of things to take a step back, to listen more than you speak, to be in relation with us so we can do the work we need to — for all of us.

twi-ny: You were born in Alaska, lived for a long time in Minneapolis, and recently moved to New York. How are you liking it here? I see you out a lot, so you seem to make time to enjoy the city even as you prepare for Then a Cunning Voice.

ej: I love living here. Every time I come back here from tour, from Australia, from Alaska, I am so happy that this is now my home. The two places in this country I feel most myself are Alaska and NYC — it’s the landscape, I think. Different landscapes, of course. But huge. Huge landscapes that you must tune attention to, be in relation with. Both places call for a kind of looking out for one another. You help your neighbor. You ask for help. Because we all can see the reality of not helping. If you pass someone by broken down on the road in the bush in Alaska — well, you don’t — because you recognize the danger that the weather or the wilds can present. It’s the same here — just different weather and different wilds. I see more kindnesses extended here each day. And actually, as a shy person . . . it’s so nice to step out into it, become part of it.

twi-ny: Then a Cunning Voice is very much a positive look at our future. These are very tough times in America; do you really have that much hope in humanity?

ej: I do, Mark. I have that much hope.

A long time into the future, slowly: Emily Johnson’s “Then a Cunning Voice and A Night We Spend Gazing at Stars”

By: Buck Wanner

When I’ve watched Emily Johnson’s works, there has always been some part of me that felt I didn’t know how to watch them. Things happen that I don’t expect, and other things that I expect to happen are absent. It’s less about surprise than incongruity: my ideas about what happens during a dance performance are not matched by Johnson’s dances.

I’m not unaccustomed to watching challenging dances, nor are Johnson’s dances particularly radical. They feature people moving, making music, telling stories. There are often costume, stage, or set elements that can be quite theatrical, and also some that are anti-theatrical — her previous work, SHORE, began in a schoolyard a few blocks from New York Live Arts when it was performed in New York. In the 2010s, neither of these choices (or their combination) are in themselves unusual. Within the sphere of downtown dance, Johnson’s work is, structurally speaking, easily recognizable as dance, and in some senses even conventional.

Yet even if the work was recognizable to me as dance, there were some aspects of the experience that didn’t cohere, though it’s never been easy to pin down what those aspects are. What elements of the performance are important to pay attention to? Which materials are being manipulated and which are incidental? What are the value systems in play? I always seemed to find myself a little uncertain. Essentially, my expectations about how I should watch a dance did not seem to be the right ones for this work.

I don’t expect to know how to watch every work I see, but my experience with Johnson’s works bring up questions for me about “context” for viewing work. By “context” I mean the frameworks we use to understand and process the experiences we encounter during a performance. I think information always needs a context, how every language needs a grammar — information without context is like a set of numbers with no corresponding key to tell us what those numbers refer to. And contexts are not universal or always known by everyone involved. Sometimes I think about the idea that an “artwork should speak for itself” or “be understood on its own terms,” i.e., without an explanation. It’s a provocative and potentially inspiring idea, but lately the only version of it I can really get on board with would be something along the lines of, “my intended audience already has the necessary context for this work,” thus not requiring any further context. But the context is still there — it’s just assumed.

Johnson’s recent works — the trilogy comprised of The Thank-you Bar, Niicugni, and SHORE — have engaged in processes that relied on a great deal of material that didn’t necessarily manifest in the performance proper. Some examples: in Johnson’s 2012 Niicugni, 51 handmade fishskin lanterns adorned the performance space, creating their own kind of installation, and a map of these lanterns was given along with the performance program. These lanterns were made in a number of workshops, led by Johnson, across the country and over a period of several months. Johnson described these workshops as vital to the performance itself, and noted that she was able to recognize each individual lantern and the person who made it. But at the same time, she said she didn’t feel it was important for the audience of the performance to know all of this information: “That story can be known and voiced, or be kept with the object. And either one is fine. The story is offered, but not forced.”

This idea seemed to go even further with SHORE (2014-2017). SHORE had four distinct parts: PERFORMANCE, COMMUNITY ACTION, STORY, and FEAST. These four parts were discrete events, happening on different days and in different locations, and were adapted to each unique location where SHORE was performed. Attendees of SHORE: PERFORMANCE didn’t need to attend all (or any) of the other events, and vice-versa. Johnson, in a conversation with Ain Gordon, who directed SHORE, said that as far as she was concerned, “If you come to the feast you’ve been to SHORE. If you watch a show you’ve also been to SHORE, and it’s not more important than if you came to the feast.”

These examples highlight some of the frameworks at play in Johnson’s work, which start to open up some of what I have found productively disorienting about Johnson’s dances. The way that each part of SHORE stood in for the whole in one sense displaces the primacy of “performance” with regard to dance; in another sense, it simply questions the distinction among these categories to begin with. When we spoke in early August, Johnson reflected on the assumption that these various activities she engages in are somehow different from dance proper: “When did we decide that feasting wasn’t part of dancing? That communities coming together to prepare and do work, and that dance actually does something — when did we decide that wasn’t the case anymore? Somewhere in this western world, we put these things in different places, and we built a relationship with dance as something we go see over there, and everything else is over here. And I don’t engage in that relationship with what I make.” Johnson does, it seems, conceive of dance differently than how one might encounter it more generally. While this attitude shares some similarity to notions of interdisciplinary art, the histories of the avant-garde don’t feel like the main reference for Johnson’s broad concept of dance. Her work doesn’t seem to start from the assumption that there are distinct disciplines that one can be between, that there are boundaries that need to be broken. The premise is simply different.


In her previous works, the events that contributed to the process took place in physically separate spaces and during different times than the performance itself. The upcoming work, Then a Cunning Voice and A Night We Spend Gazing at Stars, to be performed this Saturday night on Randall’s Island, seems to be collapsing this to a degree. The night’s events will feature the activities, such as storytelling and feasting, that in previous works were dispersed across times and places, and include participatory elements, among which will be sewing: contributing to the 4000 square foot quilt that has been under construction for the past three years in several different countries. Whereas with SHORE, these activities occurred separate from the performance, this time, the performance is all of these things.

The idea of containing context within the performance itself reminds me of my experience of Ralph Lemon’s 2010 work How can you stay in the house all day and not go anywhere?. For the first 45 of the roughly 80-minute work, Lemon read a text, accompanied by a film. While the performance was notable for people leaving throughout the evening — Lemon noted, “It was the first work I’ve made with a conscious understanding of an audience where people are consistently walking out of the show” — I remember distinctly feeling that I received from the opening reading exactly the amount of context I needed to engage with what followed. In effect, Lemon provided the context the audience needed within the frame of performance, rather than asking them to read something beforehand, or have the knowledge some other way. It suggests a different intention toward the audience, a more explicitly generous one (see dramaturg Katherine Profeta’s discussion of generosity in regards to How can you stay…?).

This connects to what I see Johnson doing, though one important difference being that Johnson is asking her audience not simply to know something about the work, to be aware of the work’s context, but to take part in creating that context as well. The information for Then a Cunning Voice on PS122’s website gives the audience a list of things that they are expected to bring to the performance, as well as activities they will be expected to take part in, and attitudes they will be expected to acknowledge. The context for this work isn’t just about knowing how to see, but also how to act — and both are intended to be created through the performance.

Perhaps the most unexpected thing for me regarding Johnson’s work is how time operates. The final note on the list of audience protocols for the performance — things audience members acknowledge by attending this performance — reads: “There is no end to the work we begin here.” For Johnson, this indicates something specific: the work isn’t meant to be fully comprehended in the moment of performance. When I ask, in a general sense, what Johnson wants her work to do, her response involves a relationship to time: “I want to allow for the possibility of communication, and I want that to happen a long time into the future, slowly.” Johnson doesn’t expect that her work manifests its full potential during the moment of performance — just the opposite, in fact: “All this preparation, on our part, is to allow for that future communication. When we’re all gone, we’ve all left the island, we’re not around each other — that there can still be an exchange. That’s really what I’m interested in creating: that future exchange.”

I certainly find the performances that affect me most continue to do so long after the event itself. I continue to think about them, to feel what they bring up. However, I also expect these to be the residual effects of what was an immediately impactful experience; it doesn’t occur to me that a performance would not affect me in the moment, but then later grow into something that does.

Not expecting the audience to “get” the work during the performance seems, to me, to be a big leap of faith on Johnson’s part. Performers often talk about being able to feel the audience during a performance, the energetic response from the people in the space, as a means of feedback. From what Johnson describes, she is not relying on this kind of immediate feedback — she is kind of setting up the performance and sending it out to the world without asking for confirmation about how it is received. And as much as Johnson is taking a leap of faith, she is also asking for a significant amount of trust from her audience. She acknowledges that her expectations of time and effect might not be comfortable, but accepts this, noting, “neither is any process which is worth doing. You are moving towards something that you haven’t conceived of yet, something that you don’t know is possible yet.”

If I shouldn’t walk into her performance with the expectation that I leave it having understood what it was meant to do, what should I expect to experience? Getting the answer to that, I think, is the reason I come to see Johnson’s work. I still don’t think I know exactly how I should watch these works, but I’m also less concerned with figuring it out — I know I feel the effect of the work, even if I can’t define it. It makes sense to me in relation to how Johnson describes how she deals with this question of excess context, of her audience not knowing — not possibly being able to know — everything that went into making the work: “It makes me think of hosting. When you are a good host, you have prepared enough so that your guests don’t know everything that you’ve done. But the sense with which they are welcomed can open the space, can provide enough comfort that they can feel ready for whatever this is. That they can feel cared for — because then that can, hopefully, reciprocate care.”

Though I’m still wondering about this idea of not experiencing the full effect of a work during the performance — perhaps not until weeks later, even — I can now remember one time that I did experience exactly this: it was the first time I saw Johnson’s work.